Bodegas Beronia is a winery in the village of Ollauri in the Rioja Alta region in Spain. As Rioja wineries go, it’s a newcomer, having been created in 1973 by a group of businessmen from the Basque country. They were members of a private gastronomical society called a txoko, which means nook or cozy corner in Basque. These societies were traditionally for men only, a place where they could meet, prepare meals and dine, drink and smoke the night away. This group often vacationed in Ollauri where they bought a “merendero,” the Rioja version of a gastronomical society. At first, they got wines for their meals from local wineries, but they decided that they wanted to make their own wine.
In 1982, the Jerez-based, family owned company, Gonzales Byass, bought Beronia. Included were pre-phylloxera vineyards more than 100 years old, as well as vineyards that were planted when the winery was constructed in 1973. New vineyards were planted 2011, bringing the total of estate vineyards to 25 hectares (61.8 acres) surrounding the winery. They also work with 200 growers, controlling an additional 870 (2150 acres) hectares nearby the winery.
The winery is a model of up-to-the minute technology and equipment. It has the usual lineup of stainless-steel tanks, and I noticed that every tank was outfitted with its own pump, a significant investment. No pesky hoses lying around on the floor. The barrel room, more like a cathedral, enshrines 30,000 or so barrels. The library is a treasure trove of historical vintages. A sleek and stylish tasting room welcomes visitors for tasting and educational experiences.
I had the opportunity to visit Beronia earlier this year with a group of writers and hospitality professionals as the guest of Gonzales Byass. Matias Calleja, Winemaker and Technical Director of Beronia, was our host. He’s been with Beronia for more than 30 years, and though he spoke to us through an interpreter, he clearly conveyed the ardor, energy, curiosity and expertise that he brings to his job. Noting that their vineyards are in a perfect area to grow high quality grapes he said, “my job is to not mess up such good conditions.”
An example of his resolve to “not mess up” was his quest to find the best aging vessel to showcase their fruit quality while meeting the criteria of the Rioja DOCa appellation. As their vines mature and the knowledge of best viticultural practices has improved, they are able to grow better quality fruit. He pointed out that the average alcohol used to be 12.5˚. Today it is 13˚ plus. He said they are making the most controlled and best quality wines they have ever made. They also must follow the region’s winemaking rules regarding aging time in oak and in bottle. He noted changing consumer tastes for more fruit forward wines. He felt there must be a way to address these various concerns and oak might be the answer.
Initially he tried aging some of the wine in in French and some in American oak, but the result was not satisfactory. So, he decided to try a hybrid barrel made of both types of oak. It wasn’t easy to convince the cooper, but I suspect that Callajas doesn’t take no for an answer. He showed us the effect of the barrel by pulling samples of wines aged in an American oak barrel, a French oak barrel and a hybrid American-French barrel to show us how he made his decision. The wine from the American oak was exuberant with forward fruit, coconut and vanilla aromas and flavors. When combined with the quality of the fruit, the result was more “New World” in style than Riojan. The French sample was more elegant and much more subdued with baking spice aromas, lacking the traditional American-oak personality. The American-French barrel hit just the right notes, showing roundness and vanilla from American oak corralled by the subtle structure of the French oak. The final design of the “Mattias barrel” is American oak staves and French oak heads.
After the barrel tasting, Callajas treated us to a tasting of a few of their wines. The first was the 2017 Rioja Rosé. The 60 percent Garnacha that makes up Beronia Rioja DOCa, Rose 2017 ($15) went through a short, cold maceration to emphasize its strawberry, raspberry fruit. Afterwards, it was blended with Tempranillo to create a pretty pale pink color with fresh berry fruit, bright acidity and a touch of Tempranillo’s tannic grip.
The 2015 Crianza 2015 ($15) is mostly Tempranillo, with a small amount of Garnacha and a tiny bit of Mazuela. Calleja noted that they only include Garnacha in the Crianza in their classic wines, because he feels that this grape oxidizes quickly, so they don’t put it in their longer-aged wines. The bit of Mazuela is added for structure. The grapes come from vineyards with 15- to 30-year-old vines grown on sandy soils to get more aromatics and an easy-to-drink lightness. The wine spends eight months in new barrels and another six to eight months in used barrels. It spends another six months in bottle before release. It is a very appealing wine with red fruit aromas, round and fresh in the mouth, finished with ripe tannins.
The grapes for the Reserva 2013 ($20) come from 25- to 40-year-old vines grown in limestone, picked for lower pH meaning higher acidity for aging potential. Tempranillo is the main grape, with a small amount of Graciano for color and floral note and a bit of Mazuelo’s tannic structure and high acidity for longevity. It spends 14 months in new oak and 20 to 22 months in used oak and another 18 months minimum before release. This wine shows a deep dark ruby-black color and spicy aromas, back fruit aromas. In the mouth it is tightly structured with rich, dark fruit, vivid acidity and chewy, but pleasing tannins.
The Gran Reserva 2010 that we tasted is not yet in the US market. According to winesearcher.com, the 2009 is selling for around $29. If the 2010 comes into the market in that price range, we’re talking amazing bargain. The grapes come from 50- to 90-year-old vines their highest vineyards where the sun in plentiful. The must went through a seven to eight day cold, pre-fermentation maceration to extract color and fruit flavors and the same amount of time extended maceration to extract tannins for structure and longevity. This wine spends 16 months in 100 percent, new French oak barrels and another 12 months in used French oak because Callajas thinks it is better for the extended aging period. It spends another 36 months in bottle before release. The finished wine, now seven-year-old shows deep, dark ruby almost black color and a alluringly complex aroma of black fruits co-mingled with cocoa powder, cedar and an intriguing citrus note. It is rich and layered, yet fresh in the mouth with concentrated black fruits laced with anise, with a tight structure and fine-grained tannins.
Another great example of the thoughtfulness that Calleja brings to winemaking is the company’s new venture with the Verdejo grape in the Rueda region. They acquired 65 hectares (160.6 acres) to plant Verdejo and built a state-of-the art winery. He noticed when he was tasting Verdejos from different producers that some wines had a lot of the grape’s character in the nose, but not enough in the mouth. He wanted their wine to have the same lush character in the mouth as in the nose.
First on the agenda was the character of vineyard soils. Calleja wanted a vineyard “with special character, with strong soil rich in magnesium.” They found two sites that are their estate vineyards, Finca El Torrejón and Finca La Perdiz. The soils of El Torrejón have alluvial deposits from the Duero river that contain veins of lime, providing minerals like magnesium and calcium necessary for healthy vines.
To achieve freshness as well as structure, the Verdejo grapes are harvested in two stages. The first harvest is at the earliest ripening stage to retain acidity. The grapes are fermented at higher temperature to provide structure for the final wine. At the second harvest stage, the grapes are riper with more concentrated fruit flavor, fermented at cooler temperature to maintain the fresh fruit flavor. After the two batches are combined the wine spends three and a half months on the lees, the expired yeast cells from fermentation. They stir the wine occasionally to mix the lees with the wine. Since lees provide protection from oxidation, they are able to use lower levels of SO2, which is also an antioxidant.
The result of Calleja’s design is an utterly charming wine. I am a Rueda Verdejo fan and I love these wines because they are delicious, pair well with just about any food, and they’re not expensive--especially for the quality. Beronia’s Verdejo 2017 is one of the best I have tasted with the lush floral, tropical fruit, peachy aromas matched in the mouth and complemented with a round creamy mouthfeel. The acidity is bright and lively for freshness and structured to allow the flavors to linger.
These are just a few of the wines made by Matias Calleja and his team. It can be difficult to learn very much about someone with only a few hours together and no language in common. It does help that wine is involved, especially when it’s as good as the ones I tasted at Beronia. It was Matias’ genuine enthusiasm and commitment to making the best wines he and his team can make that needed no translation.